Living in the Material World
I came home from Vietnam in 1996 with two adopted children and a different point of view. My family and I lived on a little farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in those days and we were doing our best to move toward a sustainable lifestyle. Over the previous ten years, my husband and I had worked hard to transform a broken down farmhouse and 13 scruffy acres into our idea of a storybook farm. Our little farm had two big gardens, a small flock of chickens, sheep, goats, pigs, two dairy cows and a quarter horse that we were trying--with limited success--to train to harness work. We were certainly eating well but, due to our inability to circumvent the realities of the American food distribution system, our little farm required constant infusions of cash to enable us to purchase at retail those things we needed in order to be able to sell our farm products at wholesale prices. The situation struck us as difficult and unfair, but the sheer ridiculousness of our basic assumptions didn’t strike home until that first visit to Vietnam.
In the city of Nha Trang, where we stayed while awaiting the completion of the children’s paperwork, small herds of cattle meandered along the roadsides, munching on grass that grew at the edge of the pavement. The idea of building a fence so that cattle could have exclusive, unsupervised use of a field for foraging and toileting purposes began to seem a little eccentric in a country where old men scraped up cow pies from the pavement to sell for fertilizer and most of the city trees produced coconut crops for their respective owners. Back home, we had traded up to a larger pick-up truck to more readily haul livestock to the stock yard on sale days. But, in Vietnam, butcher-weight hogs rode in baskets affixed to human-pedaled carts and motorbikes.
Vietnamese homes, like ones built in America prior to 1900, rarely have closets. It took me awhile to realize that, if you only have two sets of clothing---one to wash and one to wear, you really don’t need a closet. I had labored long and hard to learn to spin and weave the wool from our sheep to make carpet runners to protect the polished wood floors in our refurbished American farmhouse. The Vietnamese damp-mop their locally produced ceramic tile floors and call it a day.
One day, a friend offered to take me to Nha Trang’s central market on the motorbike she shared with the eight members of her extended family. I was still a bit shaky following my initial encounter with Vietnamese traffic in Ho Chi Minh City, but I strapped on my bicycle helmet and climbed aboard. A few kilometers down the road-- just as I was starting to breathe a bit easier--the motor sputtered to a halt. Out of gas and not a gas station in sight! Without a word, my friend pushed the bike to the side of the road, where a lady sat behind a battered wooden table. Counting out a few thousand dong, my friend purchased the petrol contained in one Jim Beam bottle, upended it into the gas tank, and handed the bottle back to the lady. We were back on the road in less than two minutes.
At the market, we bought ten ceramic rice bowls for one US dollar—and yet the single dusty bottle of Scope mouthwash we found there was priced to reflect the length of its journey half-way around the world—and thus seemed unaffordable. There were no napkins at restaurant tables—yet there was bottled water. Why? Because, although there’s running water in most parts of Vietnam, it’s not purified to drinking standards. Thus the popularity of tea, bottled water and—yes—beer. This seems primitive to American sensibilities. And yet—how much sense does it make for Americans to wash their clothes, water their gardens and flush their toilets with purified drinking water? It rather depends upon your point of view, doesn’t it?
Urban Vietnamese now, twelve years later, enjoy greater access to consumer goods and have more income, on average, with which to acquire them. Thin and poor are virtually synonymous in Vietnam; some city dwellers are actually a bit chubby these days. Many families have more than one motorbike and a few of the ultra-rich even have a car. Factory-made blue jeans, knit tops and spike-heeled sandals have replaced the traditional hand-tailored ao dai for fashionable ladies. There’s an internet café on nearly every block. Yet you would still be hard-pressed to find a Vietnamese who would leave a light on in an empty room. You would never find a fan running without someone—often a guest—sitting before it. Half-empty glasses of water are poured onto potted plants, rather than down the sink. Coconuts may grow on trees here, but money does not—and people act accordingly.